Don't ask me how I feel until I have opened the wine list, because I won't know. Am I Lively & Fruity? Not at the moment. Intense & Powerful? Never. Smooth & Nutty? Not tonight. Suave & Exuberant? Yes, that's me... and a glass of something Supple & Fragrant for my wife, thank you.
"Tell me what you drink and I'll tell you who you are" could replace charades as the new country-house game. Certainly it's the in-house entertainment at TerraVina, an award-winning boutique hotel-cum-country house on the edge of the New Forest created by Gerard and Nina Basset, two of the founders of the groundbreaking Hotel Du Vin group.
Gerard Basset is probably England's most-qualified wine professional, being the only person in the world to hold simultaneously the Master Sommelier Exam, Master of Wine Exam and a Wine MBA (from Bordeaux University), for which he wrote a thesison the writing of wine lists (a-haah...) A special, spot-lit vaulted cellar takes pride of place in the dining-room, while the "real" cellar lurks below stairs. There are three sommeliers on staff and two Enomatic machines to keep opened wines fresh, enabling an impressive selection of wines by the glass.
The food? Oh yes, sorry. Head chef David Giles has drawn up a menu which, like the hotel, takes its inspiration from the laid-back vibe of Californian wine country. So instead of Hotel Du Vin's Eurocentric bistro fare, there is roasted wood pigeon with Parmesan gnocchi, grilled plaice with linguine nero and Avruga caviar sauce, and caramelised pear and Gorgonzola salad with hazelnuts. Adding to the Cal-Ital feel, the open kitchen features a big open-faced oven, fuelled pragmatically by gas rather than romantically by wood.
What isn't particularly Californian is the mood, which is still very English country house, with hushed whisperings in corners, polite nodding between tables, and lighting on the dim side of moody. The dining-room is polarised by a high-backed banquette, with only the tables to one side lit by the open kitchen. Even the kitchen brigade is quiet, with no obvious sounds of chopping, clatter or sizzle. If Gordon Ramsay walked in, you just know he'd say "For ****'s sake, it's a ****ing open kitchen – put on a ****ing show!"
Starters are Pretty & Generous. A large turban of good, oily organic smoked salmon (£8.25) is topped with chive-flecked soured cream on a blini cushion, a warm rosy-pink fig at its side. Fresh & Familiar, Simple & Intelligent. (This may get annoying, but it's fun at this end.) Next up is a bowl of fluffy foam, beneath which lies an open lasagne of fine house-made pasta, freshly picked crab and crunchy little baby leeks (£9.25). It's Bright & Light, especially with a carafe of Fresh & Fruity 2007 Frangy Roussette de Savoie (£7).
Main courses are also attractively plated, but let down by cooking times. Two big lozenges of pan-fried monkfish cheek (£16.95) drape themselves over potato purée, the plate artfully strewn with pencil leeks and streaks of salsa verde; while two trimmed, roasted wood-pigeon breasts (£16.50) team with a forest floor of Pied Bleu mushrooms, Parmesan gnocchi and pumpkin purée. The fish is oddly leathery and lacks any real flavour, and the pigeon is tight, chewy and boring, as if the eating experience was sacrificed for presentation. In better nick, both would have gone beautifully with a Supple & Fragrant 2006 Vincent Dureuil-Janthial Rully (£36.75).
A lemon tart is Well-Made & Wobbly with an exceptional raspberry sorbet (£6.50), while a nicely kept selection of cheeses includes a killer Reblochon (£7.50).
TerraVina is a class act, and any wine lover would do well to spend the night here. All that is missing is a sense of relaxation, in the food and atmosphere – then everyone can have as much fun as the wine lovers.
SCORES 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK 10-11 NEEDS HELP 12 OK 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH 14 GOOD 15 VERY GOOD 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS 17 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Hotel TerraVina, 174 Woodlands Road,Woodlands, Netley Marsh, Hampshire, tel: 02380 293 784
Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily. Around £130 for two for dinner, including wine and service.
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